Death to Negronis

An aperitif is a bitterish alcoholic beverage that was originally meant to be served before a meal to stimulate the appetite because people in the nineteenth century believed all sorts of wonderful things about alcohol, which they had to drink constantly because water, prior to modern sanitation, was a biohazard. Also it’s sort of weird to think that you needed to drink alcohol to become hungry since basically everyone was starving all the time back then.

Anyway, one aperitif is called the negroni. It is a cocktail that is made, typically, with one part gin (a neutral spirit not unlike vodka, but with plant stuff, most commonly and notably, juniper berries); one part sweet vermouth (a fortified wine with plant stuff); and one part Campari (a pinkish, bitter liqueur…with plant stuff). A million, literally a million, articles have recounted the negroni’s origins, usually by stating “so the story goes” or “so the tale goes,” before going on to recall that it was named for Count Negroni, a man who preferred gin to soda because he was in fact a monster. The negroni was relatively obscure in America until the mid-aughts or so; a Times piece in 2002 described it as “a relative stranger on these shores,” but for San Francisco, which was “the stronghold of the drink in this country.” Its popularity grew slowly, until circa 2010–2012, when everybody who intensely talks about things like beverages lost their collective shit over it. (The numbers support this teleology: Campari, the linchpin of the drink and most of variations, saw sales rise just four per cent from 2009 to 2010, but then sixteen per cent year over year from 2010 to 2011, followed by twelve per cent growth the following two years. This is likely driven by negronis, rather than the more refreshing Americano.)

When made properly — not too heavy on the gin, not with shitty vermouth and without telling anyone next to you how great it is — the negroni is perfectly fine. It has, itself, committed no sins. However, if you were to put everybody who is dying to tell you how much they like negronis into a bar, it would be the single largest and worst bar in the world, a sticky cesspool of people, standing should to shoulder, talking animatedly about nothing except how wonderfully the negroni balances its floral, herbal notes with bitterness and sweetness; how they can’t believe that other people don’t love them as much as they do, what is wrong with their palate; how they had the best negroni of their life at some bar you’ve never been to, or in Italy (which is a steadfast lie, because no one in Italy knows how to make cocktails); how their own slightly tweaked proportion of clear liquor to sweet wine-liquor to bitter pink liquor is in fact the best of all possible negroni variations, and while the negroni spinoffs like the far sturdier boulevardier, with a backbone of whiskey, are fine, the true negroni is better and able to be enjoyed at all times of day, but most especially during negroni season, which is a lie and doesn’t make any sense because if it’s actually really hot you should probably be drinking beer or seltzer with a lime, not a syrupy concoction all too often served up, rather than on the rocks.

The subtext of the discussion at this mythical world’s-most-awful bar, which might actually exist on the Internet, is that anyone who enjoy negronis has an incredibly distinguished palate which allows them to fully enjoy negronis in a way that most people can’t appreciate. One person told the Times that the negroni is “a sophisticated cocktail, too, for an audience that appreciates the cocktail and the story behind it.” Bon Appetit described the negroni at one point as “a secret handshake, a sign to bartenders that you knew what you liked, and how to order it.” Serious Eats calls it “a serious drink for serious drinkers.” GQ says, “A Negroni, like black coffee or Texas, is an acquired taste.”

This notion hinges on the negroni’s purported bitterness and botanicals, and the way it balances these flavors. But one third of its profile is sweet vermouth, like Carpano Antica — this, by the way, is when a negroni drinker will pop up and offer their own preferred vermouth, such as Punt e Mes or Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, particularly since there is a slight Carpano Antica backlash that seems to be brewing given its ubiquity in cocktail establishments — which is thick and rich and powerful and sweet. The negroni, in other words, is a generally sweet cocktail for people who wants to say that they enjoy the bitter things in life, a loud clamoring brought upon in part by the Great American Palate Shift, which venerates bitterness as way to celebrate the superiority of its proponents vis-a-vis their conquest of both evolutionary biology (our inherent primate brains associate bitterness with poison) and mainstream American taste (which demands only salt, fat and sugar).

As the primary medium by which Campari makes its way down the gullet of Americans who believe themselves to be tastemakers, Campari, the company, cares deeply about the ongoing success of the Negroni (look at those sales!). It has even succeeded, in partnership with Imbibe, in making #NegroniWeek a real thing that is currently taking place. Participating bars around the country are donating one or two dollars from each negroni sale to a charity of their choice. (Which, before I proceed, all donations to local charities, whatever the reason, are of course inherently good. BUT.) Campari is promising to give ten thousand dollars to the charity of the bar that raises the most money by selling the most negronis. A case of twelve bottles of Campari goes for three hundred and forty dollars at Astor Wine & Spirits (though obviously bars pay less than this). It is expecting more than eleven hundred bars to participate, raising at least one hundred thousand dollars, making for roughly ninety thousand negronis. That’s a lot of Campari. For this, the company is giving just ten thousand dollars to charity.

The negroni cannot support the weight of a cause, much less an entire belief system, despite everything that its adherents have poured into it. It’s a drink. A drinkable one. I guess. Sometimes. Drink it if you want. Or drink a beer. Or literally anything else. Just don’t tell anybody about it.

“Carbonated negroni” photo by Bart Everson.